Nudge Theory – What drums do you dance to?

John 'Jake' JacobFunLeave a Comment

A highly popular science book "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness" (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008) is now ten years old. BBC Radio 4 programme "Nudge Nudge" investigates the growing influence of Nudge Theory in government and business (broadcast 8th July and 23rd October 2018).

Nudge holds that rather than making decisions on a rational basis, innate behaviours of human nature influence making choices; risk avoidance, unrealistic optimism and overestimating bad behavior in others; the list goes on. Insights into these behaviours can be used by nuanced influences to nudge people to make "better choices for themselves and society" as The Behavioural Insights Team say.

As early as 2010 No. 10 set up a small Nudge Unit headed up by David Halpern who is now CEO of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). BIT is co-owned by the government and now provides services to government departments and other countries around the world.

Nudge Theory Examples:

  • Removing the £ sign from menus makes people less price averse.
  • Paint a line on a railway platform and people stand further from the edge.
  • Job Centres find that rather than challenging people to say what they had done to find work over the past week asking them what they planned to do in the coming week resulted in more people coming of off benefits.
  • Auto enrollment in pension schemes with an option to opt out produces more personal pension engagement than opt in schemes.
  • A tax advice that carries a note that most people pay there tax on time results in prompter payments.

Nudge Wars - The dark side of nudge theory

The private sector is employing nudge tactics for their own ends. A bank may employ auto-enrolment to an optional overdraft protection program that provides for an overdraft albeit at very high interest rates. This may not have been clear at sign-up even if that choice was offered. Legislation is introduced to counteract presumed consent; the financial institution responds with an new nudge to encourage enrolment “do you want to lose the protection you have long enjoyed?”; addressing the behavioural insight of loss aversion.


About the Author

John 'Jake' Jacob

Technical Lead


Jake’s working life began as a Field Biologist for Wandsworth Borough Council; collecting, identifying and recording animal and plant life in parks, commons and other habitats; the data was used by the Borough and interested parties such as Friends of the Earth. Jake also used this material to write nature guides in Putney and Wimbledon. More about Jake.


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